After a devastating year for the hospitality industry, it might not seem like there’s much to celebrate. But that isn’t stopping Tales of the Cocktail, the 19-year-old New Orleans-based festival, from holding its annual Spirited Awards this fall. Winning a Spirited Award has transformed the fate of hundreds of bars around the world. “It was humbling to receive such recognition from our peers,” says Linden Pride, owner of Dante in New York, the Negroni paradise that was named World’s Best Bar in 2019. “It definitely helped open doors for new business opportunities and partnerships within the industry.”
For the 2021 Spirited Awards, which will take place on September 23, the foundation has shaken up its format to reflect the toll the pandemic has taken on the industry: Only writing and media awards will be given out this year. (Full disclosure: Forbes is the official media partner of Tales of the Cocktail.)
“As we looked back on 2020, we realized that there really was no way to award bars or bartenders on an even playing field,” says Eileen Wayner, the newly appointed CEO of Tales of the Cocktail. “Bars were closed—some permanently—and many bartenders and staff were out of work for extended periods of time. And globally, the restrictions for bars varied drastically. Instead, Tales leadership resolutely decided that what would be much more appropriate would be for the industry to reflect on the past year, focus on recovery, and find a path forward—in some cases day by day.”
Of course, many watering holes stayed open during the pandemic, but it wasn’t a level playing field or financially feasible for most—given the already-slim profit margins bars and restaurants were facing in the pre-Covid era. Throw in the great difficulties brought about by the pandemic (lockdowns, the logistics behind keeping employees safe, supply chain problems, staffing issues, the exorbitant cost of commercial rent) and it became nearly impossible for many hospitality-based businesses to survive. Even award-winning and highly acclaimed bars have shuttered in the past fifteen months—some temporarily, others for good.
“For the bars that were able to remain open and navigate closures and capacity restrictions, mask and vaccination mandates, we tip our hats,” Wayner says. “And we raise our glass to the staff that is working tirelessly to provide hospitality in the most difficult of circumstances.”
But despite everything, it doesn’t mean that the Spirited Awards is completely off the books this year. To celebrate the remarkable resilience of the drinks industry, the 2021 ceremony will still announce winners for the Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award, Pioneer Award, Timeless U.S. Award, Timeless International Award.
Beyond that, Tales of the Cocktail gives out distinctions in the writing and media categories annually—and at least that much will push through in its entirety this September. It’s important to note that many of this year’s media nominees differ from that of years past in that this year’s stories peel back the curtain to expose some unsavory truths and injustices—both past and present, pandemic-related or not: There’s John DeBary, cofounder of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, talking about how much money it actually takes to run a bar in “The True Cost of a Cocktail.” Writer Gabrielle Nicole Pharms explores inclusion and representation (or the lack thereof) in two nominated pieces for UPROXX: “A Black Bourbon Writer Reflects on Representation in the Whiskey Industry” and “Becky Paskin On Sexism in Spirits and the ‘Whisky Bible’ Controversy.” Meanwhile, in an essay called “Fuck You, Pay Me,” the award-winning barkeep, Alex Kratena, explores all the ways in which spirits professionals are exploited for free labor.
In the books category, service-oriented tomes reigned supreme with the likes of Drinking French by David Lebovitz, Good Drinks: Alcohol-Free Recipes for When You’re Not Drinking for Whatever Reason by Julia Bainbridge, and more.
“A great nominee has a clear voice and perspective, and their excitement and passion about their work is palpable. And while the writing and media committee made the determinations for the nominees and finalists, I think it would be impossible not to acknowledge the tremendous challenges this industry is facing, and the works that were submitted explore some of those issues,” Wayner says of this year’s nominees. “I also think that it was important to include these categories in the awards this year, since journalists and writers were so active—and even more so in the digital space.”
See the full list of this year’s Sprited Awards nominees for Writing and Media below.
2021 Spirited Awards Top 10 Writing and Media Nominees (Listed in Alphabetical Order)
Best Cocktail and Spirits Publication
Best Broadcast, Podcast, or Online Video Series
Best Cocktail and Spirits Writing
“A (Non-)History of Jamaica in British Navy Rum” by Matt Pietrek, Cocktail Wonk